Are Your Materials Helping Your Students Learn Or Just Wasting Your Time?

Find out what you can use as materials, how to evaluate how useful they are and when it might just be better to stick to the course book.

Materials creation can be both an outlet for teachers' creativity and an opportunity to make lessons more relevant to students. On the flip side they can also be a giant time-drain and introduce uncertainty to students. 

Further Reading

For more on creating materials, check out Brian Tomlinson's book Materials Development in Language Teaching (below).

  • What are Materials?

  • Mobile phones
  • Advertisements
  • Texts
  • Electronics
  • Realia
  • Images
  • Audio
  • Lyrics
  • Schedules

How to Evaluate Materials

  • Real world-ness
  • Recycleablity
  • Reaction
  • Results

Are Your Materials Helping Your Students Learn or Wasting Your Time? Transcript

Ross:  Hi, everyone.

Tracy:  Hi, everyone.

Ross:  A couple of weeks ago, we saw a teacher on a diploma class, and they created probably the most beautiful materials I've ever seen of any class, ever. Everything was personalized. They had passports for every student. Must have taken hours to create all the materials.

At the beginning of the class, every student had to check in, and they got their boarding pass, and got told to go to a certain gate. Amazing at setting contacts.

The materials just didn't get used again after that, and really got us thinking about what are some of the principles for using materials, and making sure that, if you're spending a lot of time preparing materials, that they're actually going to some use.

Tracy:  Yeah, and we've got three questions and the first question is, what constitute materials? Number Two.

Ross:  How to evaluate materials? Are they useful or not useful? Finally.

Tracy:  When should we make our own materials and when should we stick to the course books?

What Are Materials?

Ross:  This is based on Jerry Gebbard, who's just got a list of different things that constitute materials. To make them easier to remember, they're an acronym. M is for...

Tracy: phones.

Ross:  What are some things you can use mobile phones for, Trace?

Tracy:  Calling someone, send text messages or reading text messages and reply, and also you can use your phone, of course, to send emails.

Ross:  Have you seen people use those in class?

Tracy:  Yeah, sometimes I see some teachers set up a WeChat group before the lesson started, and then [use it] during the lesson. It's to really encourage the peer feedback, so everyone can see the messages and easier for teachers to monitor what's going on, because if everybody writes on a piece of paper, it might be difficult to go around in a classroom.

Ross:  OK, that's M. What about A?

Tracy:  Advertisement.

Ross:  Job Adverts, maybe menus, fliers for different businesses, or travel brochures. Those are all kinds of advertisement that you can bring into class.

Tracy:  I remember, I did a class ages ago with a different advertisements from travel agencies about different tours, and they have some Chinese and English on it, and have different prices. I think it's really good material to have a class talking about travel destinations. Some students, at the end, they say, "Oh, I'm definitely going to look at this package more after the class." The next one, T.

Ross:  TV, so television, videos, movies, all those kind of things. Something I find really fun with kids was to show a bit of a TV show or a simple cartoon, and then you stop it halfway through. Then you get them to predict what's going to happen at the end.

Then they write the script for what's going to happen. Then they act it out in front of everyone else. Then the students vote on which one is their favorite. Then you play the final thing and get them to watch that again and see if they're correct. You get the four skills; reading, listening, speaking, writing.

Tracy:  We're not just talking about playing the video or audio. That's not enough. Right?

Ross:  Yeah, right.

Tracy:  You have to do something with it. You have to give the students a task which is relevant to their context, so not just play the video and then leave them alone, and then you are going away.


Tracy:  Yeah, OK, so M‑A‑T‑E.

Ross:  Correct, for electronic materials which could include things like...

Tracy:  ...anything online or...

Ross:  ...anything online ‑‑ apps, websites.

Tracy:  Yeah, people are looking for new apps. Right? They're looking for the one that is going to be useful for them, and more likely for people to recommend, review different apps to each other or with each other.

Ross:  Next is R. R stands for...?

Tracy:  Realia. What is realia, by the way?

Ross:  Just real world objects, so real stuff. If you're teaching kids, you often end up with a huge pile of flashcards, but if you're teaching something like stationery, then why would you have a flashcard of a pencil when all the students have a pencil on the desks?

Tracy:  [laughs] I remember a teacher teaching a lesson about the clothes shopping and they bring loads of clothes items, but it's really, really cool and just make it a shop.

Ross:  Oh, like setting up a clothes shop in the classroom?

Tracy:  Yeah, yeah.

Ross:  Cool. I think there's also all this other Realia that the students are probably carrying around with them in their wallets, or on their phones, or in their bags, and, of course, just around the school.

For example, if you’re doing a class on giving directions you can just get the students to talk about giving directions to people around the school that they're in. That's using the school and the building of the school, or the classroom, as Realia.

Tracy:  Let's move on to the next one, I.

Ross:  For Images. We often talk in task‑based learning about having some sort of a gap. Images can be good for setting up an opinion gap. It could be your flat mates, and here's a bunch of different pictures. You have to choose the one that you want to buy for your apartment, and they've all got different prices.

Next is A, for Audio.

Tracy:  Audio.

Ross:  It's so common that people have audios for listening activities, but what makes a good audio?

Tracy:  Make it sound as natural as possible, but don't just have every single line written down on the paper, and then you read it out.

Ross:  I think reading out loud and speaking are actually quite different in terms of pronunciation and...

Tracy:  Just like you and me now, we're recording the podcast. We don't really script that much...

Ross:  We have some notes.

Tracy:  ...but we don't really script it, so I do interrupt what you say, sometimes...

Ross:  That's such a good point.

Tracy:  ...and when we’re arguing...

Ross:  Or we talk over the top of each other.

Tracy:  Yeah. [laughs]

Ross:  All these things happen in real life conversation. If you script out something, then it's very rare that students will get exposed to those real aspects of discourse.

Tracy:  Yeah, exactly. Let's move to the second last, Lyrics. For example, some grammar points. You want to focus on certain structures or utterances in some parts of the lyrics. They might be repeated a few times, and they naturally expose to that sentence structure.

Ross:  I've seen it also for pronunciation where the teacher will give the students the lyrics. They get them to listen to the music and find what's different between if the students read the words out loud and then how the words are pronounced in the song. What's the last one?

Tracy:  S, schedules.

Ross:  What kind of schedules?

Tracy:  Train, flights, cinema, I think this is something so useful, even for me, to be honest. Sometimes I felt it's quite difficult to fully understand a schedule. Especially, there are loads, loads of things going on, like a different train station. They have different names. You don't know the name of the train station, and you have to figure out how to do that under a lot of pressure.

Ross:  Yeah. It could also, maybe, for if you give students a budget and they have to plan a holiday. You've got to look at all the different flights and some flights are cheaper, but leave very early in the morning. That can prompt a lot of discussion. Did you want to recap really quickly for materials?

Tracy:  Yes. The acronym for materials ‑‑ Mobile phones.

Ross:  Advertisements.

Tracy:  TV.

Ross:  Electronic.

Tracy:  Realia.

Ross:  Images.

Tracy:  Audio.

Ross:  Lyrics.

Tracy:  Schedules.

What makes good materials?

Tracy:  We talk about what make good material. How can we evaluate materials? What are the criteria?

Ross:  I tell people there's four R's that you have to remember to evaluate materials.

Tracy:  Is our podcast today all based on acronyms?

Ross:  Mainly.


Tracy:  OK, four R's.

Ross:  There's real worldness, recyclability, the reaction that they promote from the students, and then the results that they get in terms of language production or exposure. Should we go through them?

Tracy:  OK, sure. The first one, real worldness.

Ross:  Often, people talk about exposing students to authentic materials. Authentic materials are just materials that have not been made with language learners in mind. A course book is not authentic, but bringing in a menu from a restaurant, that's an authentic material.

I often find in reality it can be very, very challenging to find authentic materials all the time for your class, because often they're just too difficult for students. I almost see it as being on this scale of from fake to real. I think the more real world you can make your materials, the better.

Tracy:  For example, if you do want to talk about something from the newspaper, but maybe, the article from the newspaper is not really suitable for this group of learners, and maybe, you still want to keep the headings, the layout of newspaper, and you make some changes in the body part.

Ross:  Right. You could edit it. Take out some difficult words, that kind of thing.

Tracy:  For that real worldness, it’s mainly for context relies the class for the learners, and just make them to expose to the language as real as possible.

Ross:  I think it also means that the better you know the students, the more you can prepare things that are going to be real world to them. For example, if you've got a bunch of housewives, then bringing in materials about business are going to be irrelevant to them.

If you've got a bunch of students that are learning English because they want to find a job, then bringing in a bunch of example CVs and resumes for them to look at is probably more real world for them. Right?

Tracy:  Mm‑hmm.

Ross:  If it's children, then bringing in fancy dress or games, those are things that students might do outside of class.

Tracy:  Second R is recyclability, so use it more than once?

Ross:  Right. I think one of the mistakes that inexperienced teachers often make is they'll have for one class maybe five or six different hand‑outs, when, really, ideally, you want maybe like one or two materials that you can recycle, and you can use it again and again throughout the class.

Tracy:  For example, you have some kind of reading materials, and you may want them to read for just specific information, and then you might want to, "OK, are there any other utterances that you can switch based on their previous learning?" Maybe, "OK, so what's your opinion about this?" and you can have your learners generate a meaningful conversation to share their opinion.

Ross:  I think, with that, the other advantage of it is that every time you give students a new material, it takes them a couple of minutes to understand what it is and what they have to do with it. If you can keep using the same thing, then it's more efficient for you, but it's also more efficient for the student in their understanding of what it is that's being asked of them.

Tracy:  Yeah. Then the next one is going to be?

Ross:  Reaction. I think, with this, if you just have some black and white gap fill, it's really boring for the students when they see this stuff all the time. When the teacher makes a real effort with the materials, and prints things out in color, and makes them look really nice, I think that provokes a reaction in the students and gets them real excited.

I also find two other things. One is just using personal things of the teachers, like if the teachers bring in something of their own and shows it to the students. It's maybe like, "Here's a picture of me on holiday five years ago," and then using that as some sort of material for the lesson, because the students are often interested in the teacher.

Tracy:  Let's look at the last R, which means results.

Ross:  Here, we're talking about result in terms of, hopefully, getting the students to talk to each [laughs] other, or produce some language, or be exposed to language.

Tracy:  Yeah. I think, here, it is really talking about the aims of using material.

Ross:  Right, so a teacher bringing these maps and the students had to ask each other, "How do I get from A to B?" but there's no reason to communicate, because both people were looking at the same map.


Ross:  There is no reason for anyone to talk. If you give materials, then at least using them on a way that promotes that. For example, maybe you call someone else in the class and they have the map, but you don't have the map.

Tracy:  Yeah, so always think about if the material is going to contribute to the learning.

When Should You Avoid Making Materials and Stick to the Coursebook?

Ross:  We spoke a lot earlier about the advantages of teachers making their own materials. What do you think are maybe some of the disadvantages of teachers creating their own materials?

Tracy:  From Howard and Major's article in the "Guidelines for Designing Effective English Language Teaching Materials," they talked about the first event, it can be organization. First example, course books.

Sometimes the curriculum or the contents can be a little bit dry, but still they provide a teacher and students a coherent work they can revise from, if they want to preview, and they can go and have a look. If they have maybe similar structures, so they focus on first skills or maybe some different aspects of the language, and you know, "OK, it covers..." what?

Ross:  Comprehensively.

Tracy:  Yeah, exactly. The next one, about the quality, because different teachers, they may have different understanding of creating their own material. They might have different teaching stage in their career. For some teacher, they don't have much experience of creating material. It might be a question mark on either is it good quality or not.

The last one is time‑consuming. [laughs] Reading reality for each lesson, it just takes a lot of time, if you want to design very good material.

Ross:  How do you think you can decide then, Tracy, when is it worth making your own materials for a class, and when is it better to just stick with what's in the course book?

Tracy:  I'd say when you find the activities in your course book really doesn't suitable for this group of learners ‑‑ it's too difficult, or it's too easy, or doesn't really serve the lesson objectives ‑‑ we might need to change it.

I remember, I have four male students who are all IT, but the lesson's about shopping, buy clothes online. Of course, they are not motivated, but I change it to buying digital products, and that's maybe more relevant to their background and their interest.

Ross:  Oh, cool. Yeah, right. Again, with that, it's probably quite easy to go online and find an advert for the new iPhone or something. Maybe, that's the time when the topic doesn't fit, but actually time‑wise, you can just find some authentic materials and access them quite quickly.

[background music]

Tracy:  For me, I really think the teaching materials is like makeup. If you put on too much makeup, it's going to make the person look strange and awful. You think about it, you spend a lot of time to put on all the makeup, but it doesn't work that well.

It's just like you spend all the time to develop the material. I don't think it's going to help your learner and help you. If you just use a little bit makeup to highlight the good part of your face, I think it's like using the material. You want to highlight one or two bits of your lesson.

Ross:  OK. Thanks everyone for listening.

[background music]

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Transcription by CastingWords